George Orwell was a romantic. His politics represents the clang of his aspirations against the cold steel of realityby Robin McGhee / October 23, 2013 / Leave a comment
Once a novelist has achieved a certain level of fame, they will be expected to comment on both art and politics. Chances are, they will know next to nothing about the latter. Can any intellectual genuinely understand both politics and art simultaneously? George Orwell looked at this question, cleared his throat, and showed us how it’s done.
Orwell’s biographers offer two ways of reading him: as a man of letters or as a man of politics. In DJ Taylor’s 2003 biography Orwell: The Life, we get the literary Orwell. Taylor writes the literary parodies in Private Eye magazine and, unsurprisingly, his book can be placed squarely on a pile of literary anecdotage, alongside the collected letters of Philip Larkin and a fully-annotated deluxe edition of Finnegans Wake. Magazines are equally fond of the literary Orwell. They often hand their Orwell assignments to novelists, critics and poets like Stephen Spender, Julian Barnes, James Wood and VS Pritchett.
Then there is the political Orwell. This is the Orwell of the Twitter account @GeorgeOrwell1984, which was set up in the wake of the NSA scandal. (Its only ever tweet: “I told you so”). This Orwell emerges from the definitive biography by Bernard Crick, which places him firmly in the political camp. Crick includes the feuds with publishers and fellow writers—how could he not, elasticising a 47-year life into 600 pages—but his emphasis is the political development of his subject, and how his personality shaped his principles. Orwell was a petulant human being who jealously guarded his identity. Within this narcissistic creature burned a passionate desire to understand society—and in understanding it, to change it.